Last updated: 20.07.17

First aid: How to put someone in the recovery position

Please note that the information on this page does not qualify you as a first aider, and Virtual College advises calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency. All content provided is for general information only.

How to put someone in the recovery position

The recovery position can help to save a person's life in the event of serious illness or injury. Therefore, it can be extremely important to learn how to put someone in the recovery position in case you're ever first on the scene of an accident. It’s rarely the case that the first person on the scene of an accident will be a trained first aider or medical professional, which is why it’s so valuable a skill. In this article, we’re going to look at why someone should be placed into the recovery position and explain step-by-step instructions for how to do it.

What is the purpose of the recovery position?

The recovery position is intended to prevent the airway from being obstructed in an unconscious person, either by vomit or their own tongue. A first responder to an incident may need to put an individual in the recovery position if they have fallen unconscious due to alcohol intoxication or in the event of a more serious trauma or seizure. When someone is unconscious, they are less likely to be able to keep their own airway clear, which is why this position is so important. People still die as a result of falling unconscious from an otherwise non-life-threatening illness or accident, choking.

However, it is very important to remember that the recovery position should only be used when the casualty is breathing normally. If they are not, 999 must be called immediately and CPR must be carried out if anyone is available that knows how to carry out the procedure.

Virtual College offers a course entitled First Aid: The Primary Survey, which is designed to teach people what they need to consider when arriving at the scene of an incident. It helps first arrivals decide how to make the situation safe, what to do with the injured person, at what stage to seek medical help, and what to explain to emergency responders.

Putting a casualty in the recovery position may be part of this, so here is guidance on how to administer this basic first aid:

Steps for putting a casualty in the recovery position

Please note that the following instructions are based on you finding a casualty on their back. If they are in another position, you may not need to follow all of these steps. Memorising the steps for the recovery position is therefore really important. While at first glance it might appear that there are many steps, a person can in reality be placed into the position in a matter of seconds.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Kneel down on one side of the person.
  2. Take the arm that's closest to you, and place it at a right angle, with the palm facing upwards beside their head.
  3. Carefully take their other arm with your palm on theirs. Move the arm so that it’s across their chest, and place the back of their hand against their opposite cheek. If you take their left arm for instance, then it should now be across the body and against their right cheek. Keep your hand here to support the person’s head throughout the manoeuvre.
  4. Using your other arm, lift the person’s knee opposite you, and place it so that their foot is flat to the floor, and their knee is bent.
  5. Carefully pull the top of the knee towards you to roll the person’s body over so that it is facing you. The patient’s body weight should make this straightforward.
  6. Position the leg that you’ve just moved slightly in front of the person’s body. This will ensure that they do not roll any further.
  7. The final step is to ensure that the airway remains open, and also to allow any fluid to drain away. Gently lift the person’s chin and tilt their head back slightly. Listen to ensure that breathing continues unobstructed.
  8. In many situations, it will now be appropriate to call 999, such as in the case of severe injury or first-time seizure. If in any doubt as to the casualty’s current situation, you must seek professional medical attention.

Steps to follow if a spinal injury is suspected

In some incidents, as a result of the incident spinal injury may be suspected, but the airway may still require attention. This is potentially the case in car accidents or other serious incidents whereby major force has been placed on the body. Skiing accidents are another such example. In this situation, the usual recovery position is not advised, as the spine will need to be kept as straight as possible to prevent further trauma.

You should not tilt the casualty's head back to open the airway. Instead, kneel beside the top of the patient’s head, take two hands to either side of the face, and move the jaw by lifting it with your index and middle fingers, while gently pushing the chin with your thumbs.

You should also seek the help of others when turning the casualty onto their side. More people helping will make the spine less likely to bend during this step.

Learning how to put someone in the recovery position is an important life skill and could certainly be the difference between life and death. Like CPR, you don’t need to be a qualified first aider or medical professional to know how to put someone into the recovery position. It’s a valuable skill that just about anyone can learn, though it is suggested that training is given by a qualified person, to ensure that you fully understand the procedure.

Explore our full health and safety course offering here to see how we can help you or your employees learn skills that will help them manage workplace incidents and follow health and safety best practice.

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